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The Last East End Chair Frame Makers

June 4, 2017
by the gentle author

Jim & Hales Vaughan, fifth generation furniture makers

These are the last days of the last chair frame makers in the East End. Within a matter of weeks, brothers Jim & Hales Vaughan of H Vaughan Ltd will retire after a lifetime making bespoke chair frames, closing their old factory situated in the last shipwright’s loft in Blackwall, prior to redevelopment. So it was my privilege to pay a visit, making the acquaintance of Jim & Hales and photographing their premises as a record for posterity.

When you step off the Dockland Light Railway in Blackwall these days, you find yourself surrounded by a forest of ugly towers that has grown in recent years, casting the location into anonymity – as if you have arrived in any fast-growing, boom and bust economy on the planet where buildings are thrown up and torn down with alacrity.

Yet in a narrow side street, beside a closed down pub, sits a small brick-built Victorian factory with a decorative gable and cornice, lettered H VAUGHAN LTD. Here, you step through a cobbled yard into a modest workshop with a pitched roof supported by huge wooden beams and punctuated by tall glass panels flooding the factory with sunlight. Here are the last hand made chair frames ready to be collected by their customers and whisked away to the upholsterers. Here are the remaining pieces of old heavy machinery awaiting removal. Here is the store room, hung with myriad wooden patterns for more than forty years of chair making. Here is the wood store, with a depleted stock of beech, oak and walnut planks.

Here I met James & Hales Vaughan who have run the firm in recent years with the help of Jim’s sons, Paul & Michael. Fortunately, they were happy to take a break from clearing out the factory to chat to me and have their portraits taken. In the front office, I found ledgers containing designs for furniture stretching back through the last century, while in the drawing office cabinets overflowed with working drawings produced by generations of chair frame makers.

This is a story that stretches back even further than you might imagine. Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were traditionally the centre of the furniture and cabinet making trade in the East End and this is where H Vaughan started at the beginning of the last century. Yet even before this there was Edward Vaughan, Cabinet Maker, born in 1857 and before that Henry Vaughan, Cabinet Maker & Wholesale Furniture Manufacturer, born in 1818. Behind them were generations of Silk Dressers and Fan Makers, for this is a Huguenot family that has prospered in London by pursuing an artisan tradition through the centuries until the present day.

As the last sawdust settled upon H Vaughan Ltd, Jim Vaughan sat in his office and told me his story while his brother Hales listened from the next room, popping in to deliver an intermittent commentary, and I could not escape the realisation that I was hearing the poignant epilogue to five generations of furniture makers and the end of this particular industry in the East End.

“My grandfather started the firm in 1902, everyone used to call him Jim Vaughan but in fact he was Herbert Vaughan. At that point it was a trade mill, they used to supply the components for settee and chair frames to upholsterers, and they used to supply the components for cupboards and chest of drawers. I remember my father making the curved fronts for chests. At first, they were in Hoxton Sq then Redchurch St, then Brick Lane before we came here. We were bombed out of Redchurch St in the Second World War and when my father (he was Herbert Vaughan as well) got the premises in Brick Lane after the war, he managed to get the contract to make frames for utility furniture – you had to have a special certificate to do it and he was one of the few frame makers that got that. Then he had the idea of making copies of furniture and that was how we became bespoke chair frame makers.

I started off to be a Quantity Surveyor and lasted about a year. I could not stand the night classes and so in 1964 my dad said, ‘Would you like to join in the business?’ and I said ‘Yeah, Why not?’ My brother Hales is older than me, but it was quite a few years later that he joined. He had done an Engineering degree and was working on submarine cables but they did not have much work for him to do. It was government contract work, an odd system which consisted mostly of writing reports. So when the summer break came, my father said to him, ‘Would you like to try working for us for a bit?’ That was in 1969 and he has been here ever since. Our sister Rosemary worked here in the office for a little while too.

When I came here, I had never worked in wood before and I never got on with woodwork at school, I did not enjoy the joints, doing mortice and tenons by hand. So I started off in the office and then I worked in the factory sweeping up and ‘pulling out’ timber from the back of the machine. I used to get all the wood chips fly all over me! From there, I progressed to the bands aw then I did some frame making. Slowly but surely we started losing staff and we could not replace them. So we let the firm get smaller and smaller until I ended up running the mill with my son while, in the making shop, we had two makers and my brother Hales doing the design work and some of the tricky machining that no-one else can do. Any machinery problems Hales, can sort it out.

In 1973, our premises in Brick Lane were pulled down. We got compensation in as much as they paid for all the removal expenses and for getting this factory wired. Before we moved out, someone came round from the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society and they documented our old factory. This is luxury to what we used to have in Brick Lane – all the timber was kept outside in an alleyway and we had to chop it down to size, working outside in all weathers even when it was pouring with rain and the wind blowing. We had a sanding shop the size of this office with a big belt sander and dolly sanders and that room would get filled up with sawdust so it was like a fog in there, because there was no extraction. That was how it always was.

When we were in Brick Lane, we were supplying manufacturing upholsterers – small upholsterers that would have half a dozen three piece suites. that was one of the bread-and-butter things that we used to do all the time, and we used to do some work for bigger companies where we would supply fifty tub chairs or a dozen chesterfields at a time. We used to have a full sized removal lorry of furniture frames go out every week as regular as clockwork.

When I first started in Brick Lane, every shop there was something to do with wood and the furniture industry. Hales & I used to collect our timber in a hand cart and wheel it back to the factory. I used to go up the road for all our nails and screws. You would go in there and say, ‘Can I have two pound of nails?’and they would weigh them out for you on the scales, that was ow it was done. I used to pop over to Nichols & Clarke for nuts and bolts. We used to get our polishes at Rustins on the corner of Virginia Rd run by a little old lady with pebble glasses and we went to for carriage bolts to Lewis & Sons in the Hackney Rd. We had a wood carver in the Sunbury Workshops in Swanfield St and a wood turner in Redchurch St.

Once we moved down here to Blackwall, we were still doing a fair amount. We used to do fifty office swivel chairs at a time but slowly that dwindled off and then we were doing a lot of Knoll settees. At the moment, the popularity seems to be for settees with turned legs but over the years it has been getting quieter and quieter as people on the industry are retiring, like we are now. The demand is not there any more. Getting bespoke upholstery done is quite expensive and it is a throwaway society we have now. People think nothing of spending two or three thousand pounds on a three piece suite, having it two or three years and then throwing it away Рnot  having it re-upholstered. It is the modern trend for everything. Our furniture frames and made to last. We do not actually put a stamp on them that says they are guaranteed for life but they will last a lifetime.

Within the next two to three months, we are closing the business down and retiring. We are just clearing out all the old machinery and are getting rid of the pattern frames. We have sold this building and it will be redeveloped. We have rented a container in Rochester and we are going to store our drawings there for a year in case any of our bespoke customers want them but, after that year, it will be the end.”

Jim Vaughan at the rip saw - ‘I’ve been in sawdust all my life’

Jim Vaughan’s son Paul – sixth generation furniture maker

Fifty years of patterns for chair frames

Ledgers with records of all the designs produced in the recent generations

Cabinets full of a lifetime’s worth of working drawings for chair frames

Hales Vaughan in the Drawing Office

Designs by Charlie Addiman

Scrapbook of designs by Charlie Addiman

You may also like to take a look at

At London Oldest Ironmongers

The Last Sailmaker’s Loft

Maurice Franklin Wood Turner

Rachael South, Chair Caner

Ainsworth Broughton, Upholsterer

At H Brettell & Sons Ltd

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris F permalink
    June 4, 2017

    What is going to happen to all of the drawings and records after the year in storage is up?

  2. Jim McDermott permalink
    June 4, 2017

    Artisan skills? Victorian brick-built factories? Who needs history, character, tradition? London(sorry, Dubai-sur-Thames) needs more Towers!!!!

  3. June 4, 2017

    How sad that another artisan business is closing down. Wonderful photos, I could almost smell the sawdust! Those old armchairs look like they belong in a haunted house film. Good luck to the Vaughns! Valerie

  4. June 4, 2017

    This unique designed furniture will be much sought after in years to come especially as royal approval was given for a sofa order. This order by the Queen Mother in 1954 could have been for the Castle of Mey, Caithness her summer home. There is a lovely timeless air the brothers have archived for their design’s call it delicate & slender, see the photo’s of the bare frames it tells all. Furniture all ready out there will become desirable and could achieve antique status, its all down to this clever family Jim, Hales & Paul a dream team indeed. I hope all their business records & design books will be archived, who knows some one may buy the copyright and start manufacturing again. Another chair I like is the Orkney Chair it too has side wings keeps the draughts-away, just like the Vaughan design’s shown. Poet John

  5. June 4, 2017

    Thank you for this fascinating article – what a sad loss to the community. The photos are wonderful. Insode a battered old building, such elegance and skill. I too feel that I can smell the warm sawdust aroma.

  6. Mike Charnock permalink
    June 4, 2017

    So very very sad that another piece of our history is disappearing, this article brought back many happy memories as i trained at the London college of furniture and worked as an upholsterer in the East End for a few years.
    I wish Jim and Hales a very happy and well earned retirement.

  7. Shawdian permalink
    June 4, 2017

    Thank you James and Hales you have brought a lot of comfort and beauty into peoples homes. What will happen to all of the patterns and tools ? It is sad that today most items are made ‘to throw away’ no matter how much they cost. All of our furniture is bestoke because we like the individual styles of permanency in our home, we like the make, the comfort and each piece is unique and so well made will last years. We can still remember the people who made each piece using their love of creating, hard work and who put pride in their skills. Each piece represents a time in our marriage, a happy memory. We have had so many offers to ‘sell’ but we will not, our daughter has said she wants them all. Bespoke is like a piece of art, like a painting you will always have hung on the wall and is expensive, but so is having to replace furniture every so often. We feel sad to see family business’s like James and Hales closing down, more skills pale into history. Long live bespoke. Happy retirement James & Hales.

  8. Hilary permalink
    June 4, 2017

    V interesting piece. So sorry you are going.

  9. Sharon permalink
    June 4, 2017

    Such evocative photographs!
    How sad to hear of the end of another specialist craft, especially at a time when, belatedly, more people are waking up to the senselessness of our throw-away society and beginning to treasure the bespoke and handmade. I would like to think that there is some skilled craftsman somewhere who could continue this family’s specialist work.
    I wish James and Hales a well-earned retirement.

  10. Gary Arber permalink
    June 4, 2017

    Another old business which like mine which remains only on the internet, where it will stay until it finally fades into electrons
    Gary

  11. Roy permalink
    June 5, 2017

    Speaking as a chair maker having started 07/09/1967 this looks and sounds very familiar. A sad comment on modern life! Yes-a through away age in general. Not altogether though as there are still company’s Howe London and individuals that appreciate the traditional skills that are in decline but still breathing just. I ran a small furniture business making bespoke furniture and chairs and employing four people plus myself and my wife in the office. It has closed now after i sold it in 2004. It was getting more and more difficult to find enough work at the right price to maintain the business. The price competition from products imported from places beyond our shores was ever increasing. It always amazed in the vast amounts of money paid for modern contemporary kitchens by comparison. But all is not lost. I see many young people coming forward in this field. I think that the trade does not die but changes as with everything. There are some superb makers out there. Go out there people and support them because with out your support the trade will cease. With out change we might all be sitting in trees now or dragging our knuckles in the earth.

  12. Kasey Grier permalink
    June 5, 2017

    I too am concerned about the drawings and other records from the firm. They belong in an archive, probably the V&A. I am writing from the U.S. — is there anyone who reads the blog who could help with this?

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  13. Gaye Tirimanne permalink
    June 14, 2017

    What an interesting story and such wonderful photographs. You’ve done them proud.

  14. November 28, 2017

    Hi,
    I have been trying to get in touch with Vaughan without success and finally landed on your article to realised that they have retired.
    Would you have any telephone number for them by any chance!
    Many thanks
    Dahouk

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